Monday, July 28, 2014

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and the "New Atheism"

I have gone on record as being opposed to what I and others call the "New Atheism," as exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.  I sign on almost in full to the argument against this new "irreligious right" that one anonymous author, who calls him/herself Aphaniptera, made several years ago and generously made available for free online (really, you should read it if you care at all about the issue).

I have not changed my mind about the New Atheism, but Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 2010 novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, presents a challenge to my position I cannot ignore.  And if it doesn't change my mind--and I'm not positive that changing anyone's mind on that score is Goldstein's goal--it compels me to look anew and with more charity the claims made by the New Atheism.

The challenge, put simply, is this.  The New Atheism is more than just the overly simplistic, question-begging arguments that its most famous apologists make.  It is also a mentality, a variety of (ir)religious illusion that like most such illusions represents a worldview, a myth, that merits respect even as one grapples with and points out its shortcomings and dangers.  If I, who insist that religious-minded people be treated with respect and who shudder every time I hear an acquaintance make a disparaging remark against "those evangelicals," decline to allow a certain respect, then I am not following my own values.

Well, what is the novel about?  Its protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an up-and-coming scholar in psychology who has just written a study entitled Varieties of Religious Illusion, a deliberate echo of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience published more than 100 years ago.  Like James's work and in the spirit of intellectual empathy epitomized by James, Seltzer's book explores the ways most people, even ostensibly non-religious people, act and think in very similar ways to religious folk and often without fully realizing they do so.  At the end of his book, Seltzer appends a list of "36 arguments for the existence of god" and the logical counterarguments that devastate all but the 36th argument, which is the pantheistic claim about "god's" immanence in nature advanced by Spinoza.  In the novel, tt is this appendix that captures most non-believers' attention, prompting some of them, in a failure of reading comprehension, to suggest Seltzer could have just published the appendix without the rest of the study.  (Curiously, one Amazon reviewer seems to adopt that view, too.  That reviewer seems serious, although I won't dismiss the possibility that he's "going meta" on us.)

Seltzer's book earns him the moniker "New Atheist with a heart," and he wins interviews with popular magazines and seems on his way to a promotion from an "almost Harvard" small university to Harvard itself.  The novel charts his progress toward this end and intermixes that progress with at least three subplots.  The first is his intellectual and academic history as a graduate student.  His mentor, a famous scholar of religious studies, rails repeatedly against the "scientism" of our age.  The second is his love-life with a high-achieving academic who enjoys "fanging" (i.e., embarrassing and rendering speechless) during the question-and-answer period anyone presenting a conference paper or other presentation.  She is on her way down, having been demoted from Princeton to Seltzer's lowly university because of a political miscalculation on her part.  She hopes to climb up again to a better, more respected university.  But she doesn't forget her devotion to the "real"--i.e., "hard" and empirically rigorous--aspects of psychological science and looks upon her lover's "soft-science" psychological studies with a benign but condescending bemusement.

The third subplot involves Seltzer's encounters with a Hasidic community in New York and in particular, the precocious and prodigious son of that community's rabbi.  The son has his own challenges.  For instance, his intellectual ability enables him to intuit the theory of prime numbers long before he has had any formal instruction.  From those logical heights, the child can see something we might call an ever-present spirituality (a Spinoza-style pantheism?).  However, he has difficulty believing in the personal god of his Hasidic community, and he has to negotiate and balance his skepticism with the fact that he is next in line to be that community's rabbi. 

The novel is much more nuanced and complicated than even my longish summary suggests.  And my review here is an engagement with just one aspect of it, namely, its portrayal of Seltzer as a "New Atheist" and the climactic scene in which Seltzer debates a vocal, strident theist, named Findlay.  Goldstein portrays Seltzer throughout the book as a thoughtful, empathetic young man.  Perhaps he is meant to be what William James would have been had he lived now?  She definitely does not portray Seltzer as the bellicose, boorish wag that, say, Hitchens and Dawkins come off to me as.  In the novel's climax, the debate with Findlay, it is Findlay the theist who adopts the dishonest, question-begging, and emotion-laden arguments.  Seltzer, the "atheist with a heart," makes and defends the modest point that the argument for the existence of god is weaker than the evidence against it and that it is more likely god doesn't exist than that he does.

One of my many reactions while reading the novel was that Seltzer was not truly a "New Atheist."  (Another reaction was great, laugh-outloud enjoyment at the digs Goldstein makes at the pretentious culture of academia.)  His "more likely than not" argument is a far cry from the claim that "religion poisons everything" or that the religious impulse represents merely a vestigial reflex that has long outlived whatever evolutionary usefulness it had.  He doesn't bait religion as inherently unethical or bad.  His engagement with the son of the Hasidic rabbi is one of both wonder at the boy's intelligence and a great respect for the two traditions--religious and intellectual--with which the boy grapples.

My "not truly a 'New Atheist'" reaction is a form of reverse "no true Scotsman" fallacy.  Seltzer is not a convenient "New Atheist" to argue against.  And the fact the novel made me realize that fallacy on my part is the challenge it presents to me. By focusing so much on what the "New Atheists" argue, I'm neglecting the sincere sentiment they represent.  I could--and do--argue that those scholars, in the specific academic, intellectual milieu in which they operate, can afford to make better arguments and avoid the fallacies in their reasoning.  In other words, in their specific milieu, they are not the marginalized group that atheists in our society generally are, and therefore I believe I can expect more than slogans and sloppy logic.  In other words, criticizing Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. for what they say and how they say it is not the equivalent of telling a marginalized person, "okay, you can try to claim your rights, but you have to ask nicely."

But if we're talking general society and not, say, academia's or the New School, then it behooves me to cut people more slack.  I need to understand that the non-believer's impulse comes from somewhere and that it's not reducible to illogic any more than my modest pro-theism is reducible to its own illogic.  As Burt Likko at Ordinary Times has said elsewhere (unfortunately, I don't have a citation):  we can't really control whether we believe in god or not.  At some point, we all--or most--assume something about ultimate reality or about the nature of what counts as evidence for or against that reality.  Perhaps instead of deriding those people who disagree with me, I should jettison the term.  Even the pseudonymous Aphaniptera, who I mention above, acknowledges the difficulty of the term "New Atheism."  "[O]n the whole it has become such a commonplace among their [the New Atheists'] critics that while few of them can dispense with the term 'New Atheist,' almost all of those same critics seem compelled to qualify their use of it.  While I have so far seen fit to follow established usage, it seems to me that the aim should be to reform the term or dispense with it altogether." [page 9]

At least, that's one of my takeaways from Goldstein's book.  I fear, however, that the novel itself is over my head, that it's making an argument I don't grasp wholly, perhaps because I'm not as familiar with philosophy or science as she is.  I recommend that you read it for yourself.

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